Toward a New Vision of Productivity

This is the seventh part of a 12-part series I am posting from the end of December and into January 2009, examining the current understanding of productivity and where the concept might be heading in the future. I invite Lifehack’s readers to be an active part of this conversation, both in comments here and on your own sites (if you have one). For more discussion along these lines, be sure to check out Beyond Productivity: Living from the Inside Out, a new series of discussions featuring Charlie Gilkey, Andre Kibbe, Duff McDuffee, Jonathan Mead, Sara Pemberton, and me. Right now, only the Introduction is up, but a podcast of our talks will be avilable shortly. Stay tuned…

This series has been pretty serious so far – too serious. So I want to take a moment to discuss lifehacks, those little tips and tricks that lend this site its name.

The concept of the lifehack was born in Danny O’Brien’s now-famous Emerging Technology Conference presentation, Life Hacks: Tech Secrets of Overprolific Alpha Geeks. O’Brien used the term “life hack” to refer to the application of the programming mindset to life problems – using shell scripts and filters to process email, for example. For hackers, the goal is to create logical, reproducible systems using minimal resources; a good hack is one where code written for one function can be repurposed to do another function, or where user input can be eliminated through smart automation.

These are good principles to apply to our lives in general – the less repetitive work we have to do, the happier we are as a general rule. And multi-purposing things for several tasks is not only handy but it’s efficient. Thus a hack like Merlin Mann’s Hipster PDA really appeals to a lot of people – a handful of index cards and a binder clip are instantly transformed into a pocket notebook. Great stuff!

Unfortunately, lifehacks have gotten a bad name for themselves. In his Alternate Productivity Manifesto, Clay Collins writes, “Hacks, tweaks, tricks, etc. have emerged from a productivity hobbyist culture, are largely insufficient at solving bigger life problems, and often do not increase productivity.” In a guest post at Lifehacker, he defined the productivity hobbyist mindset, adding “If, month after month, you continue searching for the latest tip, tweak, or hack, it may mean that your approach to solving productivity problems just isn’t working.”

Fair enough. If you spend more time working on being productive than actually being productive, you might want to reassess some things. But I think the line between being productive and being a “productivity hobbyist” is way overdrawn. Having fun is an important part of the hacker ethic that gave birth to lifehacks in the first place.

It is a product of our sober, thrifty, work-loving Puritan ancestors – and their equivalents around the globe – that we’ve come to disassociate “fun” and “work” to such a strong extent. “If it was fun,” we say, “it wouldn’t be called ‘work’.” The best hackers reject that dichotomy. If it wasn’t fun, they would say, it wouldn’t be work worth doing!

Even David Allen recognizes the importance of blending fun and work in a productive lifestyle. Consider his approach to filing: he recommends you keep a stack of filing folders and a digital label maker close at hand wherever you work. Now, handwriting your labels would be more efficient and take less time, and few of us have handwriting so bad that we’d be remotely hampered trying to find our files later. But label makers are fun, and they produce files that are aesthetically pleasing – and Allen knows that if it isn’t fun, most people won’t do any filing.

In many cases, lifehacks aren’t about huge gains in efficiency or speed – some of them, like setting up a version control repository to track all your documents, are downright time-consuming, and put several new steps in between us and our work on a regular basis, for a rather dubious gain in overall efficiency. But that’s not the point – for a lot of us, it’s the elegance of the new system that matters, or the learning experience of getting it going, or just the curiosity to see “what happens if I do things this way instead of that way?”

And if that newfound elegance, knowledge, or curiosity leads to work eventually getting done that might not have – or might not have been as much fun – otherwise, then that’s damn good productivity.

In the end, we can’t measure productivity in terms of units of output. The true measure of productivity is “happiness created” and a lot of lifehacks make the act of working one that produces more happiness. And there ain’t nothing wrong with that!

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